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'Art Firsts' by Nick Trend: exploration of debuts through the canon of art history

Examining the distinction between art history and history of art to find Art Firsts at the intersection of the two discourses.

by Sakhi SobtiPublished on : Jul 08, 2023

The timeless charm of a first is in the concept's seamless evocation of nostalgia and its fundamental, chronological urgency to be continued in the future. The firsts are the foundation of history and templates for the future. Nick Trend, a journalist and art historian, speaks with STIR about the release of his book, Art Firsts, which is a whimsical approach to writing the history of art.

Art Firsts remarks that art's narrative is more than just scholarly debates and chronicles of imperative art movements. Trend works as the Head of Culture for the Daily Telegraph's travel desk; he has spent almost 30 years penning about the world's artistic gems and has crafted guides for many prestigious museums and art collections. His experience extends to the curatorial team at London's National Gallery. Trend tells STIR, "My fundamental aim in writing the book was to appeal to a wide audience. I suppose I am a chronological nerd, so instinctively, I like to arrange things in that way. But I am also a journalist, so I know you have to keep your audience engaged and entertained. I thought that theming the chapters into headings such as Pleasures, Anguish, Ideas and Concepts would help bring the history to life and avoid suffocating it with dates."

A peek into the book Art Firsts by Nick Trend, 2023 Video: Courtesy of Leighanne Murray; Published by Laurence King Publishing

What Trend does with this publication is, provide a consorted approach that bridges the discourse of art history and the history of art. The two terms are often used interchangeably; however, there are subtle structural differences between the two. For instance, art history traditionally builds on visual comprehension of aesthetic qualities, mediums, and stylistic evolution within primarily European art. By being predominantly Eurocentric, the discourse of art history undermines the universality of art, leading to misrepresentation of global artistic contributions and perpetuation of the stereotype of cultural superiority. To transcend this limitation of art history, the history of art adopts a more holistic lens, incorporating socio-political contexts, cross-cultural interactions, and global influences, promising a more inclusive and expansive perspective. In the book Art Firsts, Trend observes the discourse of art history through the kaleidoscope of history of art.

Trend tells STIR, “I don’t offer specific or detailed critiques of the teaching and writing of art history in the text, though I do have views and I think there is room for fresh approaches, hence, the concept behind this book. Art history can be a very niche subject. In order to flourish, we need to find that wider audience.”

First Joke: Portrait of a Carthusian Monk, 1446, Petrus Christus | Nick Trend| STIRworld
First Joke: Portrait of a Carthusian Monk, 1446, Petrus Christus Image: © The Jules Bache Collection, 1949/The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The book opens with sections on pleasure and anguish. The former consists of the first loving kiss, which also explores the first homosexual kiss in Western art history; the first joke, which amplifies the artistic skill and thrill to employ trompe l oeil (trick of the eye), with a fly painted on the frame of the painting Portrait of a Carthusian Monk (1446), by Petrus Christus (1410–1475). Trend refers to the same as a medieval meme.

  • First Smile: Portrait of a Young Man, c.1470, Antonello da Messina | Nick Trend| STIRworld
    First Smile: Portrait of a Young Man, c.1470, Antonello da Messina Image: © Antonello da Messina, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons/Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • First marital breakdown: Marriage a la Mode, 1743-45 , William Hogarth | STIRworld
    First marital breakdown: Marriage a la Mode, 1743-45, William Hogarth Image: © World History Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

The first smile, via Portrait of a Young Man by Antonello da Messina (c 1470) traces the comprehension of expressions in art since portraits ascribed to aristocracy were about posing unapproachability to evoke a sense of distinction. This also confirms why the Mona Lisa, famous for the smile, is unprecedentedly revered in the canon of art history. The latter chapter captures sentiments of anguish expressed through works that pioneered the emotions of a first jealous lover, first nightmare, and first scream.

Amidst this is also the first marital breakdown depicted by William Hogarth’s Marriage a la Mode (1743-45)—a visual satire of marriage of convenience, Hogarth’s sociological marketing tactic to foster sales by visually narrating the life of aristocracy beyond what meets the eye. Opening the book with relatable, universal, and undeniable sentiments dissolves the classification of Western art and inspires a new perception of art history grounded in the human spectrum of feelings.

First Abstract Painting: The Ten Largest, No. 8, Adulthood, 1907, Hilma Af Klint | STIRworld
First Abstract Painting: The Ten Largest, No. 8, Adulthood, 1907, Hilma Af Klint Image: © The Hilma af Klint Foundation

The following sections of the book feature art history's style and technique debuts. For instance, the first application of lighting effect, the first painting in true perspective, the first visible brushstrokes, and the first depiction of distorted bodies in canonical art history. Further ensuing into Ideas and Concepts, with sub-section of first mirror image, first anti-war painting, first feminist painting, and more, amongst which is also the first abstract painting; this brings to light The Ten Largest, No. 8, Adulthood by Hilma Af Klint, the Swedish painter who rose to claim the title of first European abstract painter, popularly unrecognised, due to having imposed a condition in her will—to not expose her artworks till 20 years of her passing. This is a microcosm of the conviction that history constantly reveals itself and should invite a fluid approach to assimilate facts and patterns. There are also sections in Trend’s book on pioneering portraits and debuts of reality and everyday life in the western art history canon.

Each section in Art Firsts takes us back, like the act of glancing at old photos does, facilitating reminiscence of a time we could not have known or remembered, yet we are able to experience its zeitgeist. This may remind us of the rationale for the origin of art history. In conversation with STIR, Trend addresses the discontents of art history, which are beyond the critique, writing, and teaching of the discourse.

Sakhi Sobti: What is the role of art history as a discourse?

Nick Trend: That is a big question! I suppose, personally, the reason I am drawn to art is that it makes its meanings through images and objects rather than words. As such, it helps us think, understand, and communicate non-verbally—a reminder that feelings and insights do not necessarily have to be explained rationally. Like music and poetry, the visual arts are also powerful agents for stimulating emotional and irrational responses and their role is not to try to limit meaning, but to embody and express complexity. In short, life is full of contradictions which explanatory language struggles to grapple with, but which artists relish.

Sakhi: Can you reiterate some lapses in how western art history is taught and discussed for our global audience?

Nick: The key lapse in the teaching of art history for me is not about approach but the fact that it is simply not taught enough. The subject as a whole and the fundamental intellectual tool which it relies upon—the visual analysis of art works and images—are not, as far as I know, part of mainstream education anywhere in the world. Your point about a global audience might imply a western bias in the book and I would certainly have to acknowledge that. I know about western art, so I have to work with what I know. I certainly think there might be an interesting book to be written on “firsts” in Chinese art or Indian art —or even try to encompass the whole of world art, though it would be a gargantuan task to put it together.

Sakhi: Do you see the discourse deviating from a Eurocentric narrative to a multiculturally inclusive one? If so, what can art historians do for the same?

Nick: I studied at the University of East Anglia in England which pioneered the concept of “world” art history and partly integrated it with anthropological studies. I’m not sure that “deviate” is a good word, but I think the general drift of art history has already shifted in this more multicultural direction. This is especially helpful when trying to grapple with those issues around post-colonialism and cultural appropriation. Art historians can do a lot to contribute and give context to this debate; a context which can be quite complicated since the absorption of influences and techniques from other cultures has always been the lifeblood of artistic renewal. Western and European artists have a long history of responding to art from Asia and Africa, for example, and let’s not forget, the process has been a reciprocal one.  

Sakhi: What are your thoughts on the classification of art into modern, contemporary, and post-modern?

Nick: I use such labels as little as possible in this book because I’m not sure they are always helpful. I think more generally that these sorts of classifications have probably become too rigid and entrenched, and that we should certainly challenge them. But I’m sure too, that the boundaries will shift naturally as new classifications will be added, and others will, perhaps, fall out of use.

Sakhi: How, if at all, does Art Firsts add to the naturalised narrative that art developments progressed linearly?

Nick: Progress is a problematic word, and much also depends on what you mean by “linearly”. Can you go round in circles and yet still evolve? I think you probably can, and I think that may be a good way of thinking about the way art changes and renews. Obviously, the title of the book, Art Firsts, might suggest otherwise, but I regularly emphasise that the moments of innovation which I focus on do not come totally out of the blue. They always reflect societal change or new geographical or cultural influences, and they may circle back to the art of the ancient world. Even if some of my “firsts” may be re-introductions from ancient precedent, I still think that it is fascinating to consider why, for example, there were no erotic nudes, smiling faces or formal perspectival compositions in western art for hundreds of years. And—just as importantly—what happened when these were suddenly re-introduced and how do they affect artists today.

Sakhi: What do you see as the relevance of art history in our contemporary world?

Nick: This is a major political moment for the visual arts. In a politically fractured and post-colonial world, we are seeing attacks on art works to highlight environmental protests, a new and vigorous debate around the cancellation of predatory and misogynistic artists, historic issues like slavery have suddenly come to the fore and there is significant international tension around the restitution of artefacts. The pressure of mass tourism is also an issue for some museums, sites, and institutions. So, art history is more relevant than ever. And finally, it’s worth remembering that the practice of art history is also fundamentally about looking and noticing. These are vital and rewarding skills generally, especially when virtual reality, artificial intelligence and digital manipulation is fast eroding our ability to trust images.

What do you think?

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